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Use Projects to Manage Change and Develop Leaders

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The best way to manage an innovation and improvement agenda is to break it into a connected series of projects and launch them in phases. Projects can be managed by emerging leaders--anyone in the organization that has expressed the interest and ability to handle broader responsibilities. Managing projects can be a great way to practice facilitation and leadership skills.

“It is a very cool way to spread the message about managing a 21st-century workflow in the organization, and resets the thinking of the adults to be aligned to the instructional shifts tied to project-based learning implementations,” said David Haglund, deputy superintendent in Santa Ana USD.

Haglund provided five examples of using projects to execute strategy and develop leaders:

  • Kim Garcia, a Curriculum Specialist, was charged with developing the academic program for the Advanced Learning Academy. She was given a huge amount of freedom and support to “build the school” and has since become the school’s first principal. That school expands into high school in the fall, as an early college program, and will share space with Santa Ana College.
  • Wes Kriesel, a Program Specialist, was charged with developing our new hybrid courses for high school students. He recruited a team (Team 21C) to tackle that work and has been engaging crowd-sourcing and other innovative strategies to drive the workflow. They have used blogging and “live” community sessions to engage a wider set of stakeholders in the development process.
  • Daniel Allen, an Executive Director, was charged with coordinating the work of district management team members to address six “problems of practice” identified during a student panel at the annual manager’s symposium. Those groups have been working collaboratively this school year to address issues relating to growth mindset, personalized learning plans, the use of technology to support personalization, expanding access to meaningful extracurricular programs, critical thinking and restorative practices. He blogs about his learning experiences to demonstrate his learning progression.
  • Suzie Lopez, Community Relations Specialist, was charged with resetting the District’s image in the community and to improve efforts to “tell our story.” She and a team of teachers and administrators worked to promote school choice by helping principals brand and market their schools in ways that were meaningful to the community. Their most recent School Choice Faire in October drew in several thousand community members to a festive event held in Downtown Santa Ana. The City closed off three blocks for the day, and every school hosted booths and highlighted student performers at a central stage.
  • Mark Chavez, Director of Food Services, heard student’s frustrations about food quality during student Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) sessions and responded by creating a food tasting event during which vendors were able to share their recipes and students/parents voted on what to add to the school lunch menu.

“In each case, the issues were identified as needs in our LCAP and the efforts were geared at driving a collaborative approach to problem-solving that included managers, staff, parents, students and community members,” added Haglund.  

Talent Development Tip

Every staff member should have a learning plan that includes:

  • What I need to learn to do my job better tomorrow
  • What I need to learn to get my next job
  • What I need to learn to achieve my career objectives

Project management can be a great way to build those “next job” and “career objective” skills. By asking emerging leaders to manage projects, you’ll be adding value to the organization in two ways--executing the strategic plan and developing leadership talent.

Three more school district examples demonstrate project success and talent development:

  • An assistant high school principal managed a personalized learning communication campaign that shares the district vision and student success stories to support improved deployment and community investment. (The project led to a principalship and a career supporting school communities developing next generation schools.) 
  • A high school guidance counselor led a district-wide work-based learning project that resulted in business partnerships and extended student learning opportunities (and a new role for the project lead as district communications manager.)
  • A maintenance manager led a district-wide process improvement strategy that resulted in savings and improved service delivery in many areas (and became a Facilities Director who built a new generation of schools).

Project Management Basics

Project plans should include:

  • Clear goals and well-defined deliverables
  • Timeline with major milestones, team meetings, and scheduled sponsor reviews
  • Staffing estimates for internal and external resources (especially paid contractors)
  • Budget including discretionary budget and allocated time
  • Dependencies with other projects or policies

Project roles include:

  • Executive sponsor: owns the outcome and can approve a change in the budget or timeline
  • Project manager: responsible for team effectiveness and final deliverable
  • Team member: contribute to team goal, make requested contributions
  • Advisor: internal or external resource providing project-related advice
  • Contractor: paid advisor with specific deliverables (e.g., develop and conduct a survey)

Projects can be staffed by people internal and external to the organization. Add people to the project team if they bring a required skill or perspective. If you want broader input, hold focus groups, conduct surveys, or interview people.


Assigning project management to emerging leaders is a great way to distribute leadership, to manage change and to develop leadership.

For more see:

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